Kirchgasse 32

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Photo by Monique Ligtenberg

How spices and other food sourced in colonies served as luxury goods for the Zurich upper class.

Written by Ina Boesch (Audio will follow shortly...)

An air of ecclesiastical righteousness must have hovered over the houses around the Grossmünster in the 17th century. In the shadow of the great church with its slender towers lived a whole series of clergymen. For example, the priest of the Grossmünster, who resided in the house ‘Zum kleinen Paradies’ in the upper Kirchgasse, or the administrator of the exurban property of the cathedral chapter of Constance, who lived in the adjacent Konstanzerhaus.

In the 1780ies and 1790ies, the merchant Johann Heinrich Gessner lived in the multi-story house at Kirchgasse 32 with his wife Anna Margaretha Kitt and their employees. She managed the household staff as well as the wellbeing of her husband and his guests, while he collected tithes from the farmers in the countryside and land rent from fiefs. She came from a distinguished merchant family, early globalizers, who had been naturalized in Zurich in 1535. Her great-grandfather and grandfather offered spices in their store on Münsterplatz, which in 1600 represented the entire globe: textiles from Europe, ginger from the Caribbean, sugar presumably from Brazil, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon from Asia and gum arabic from Africa. 

Spices played an important role in Anna Margaretha Kitt’s everyday life. In the kitchen she used a vast amount of them. In contrast to the time of her ancestors, the spices no longer came from all over the world and from various traders, but mainly from Asia and exclusively from one trader. The Dutch East India Company controlled production and trade in its colonies with an iron fist: when, for example, the inhabitants of the Banda islands refused to enter into trade agreements with them in 1621, the East India Company killed an estimated 2,800 Bandans. Countless others were enslaved and abducted or died because of the war. 

Anna Margaretha Kitt documented her preference for colonial spices in a cookbook in 1699, a tome containing some 470 recipes. There was at least one spice in four out of five recipes, including sugar. Ginger was her favorite, followed by pepper and cinnamon, but she also liked the taste of cloves and nutmeg. She advised larding a beef tongue with cinnamon and cloves. Or to spice a meat puree with mace and saffron. She came up with countless ideas for the preparation of her dishes. The ‘Käss mit Wein’ is particularly unique, as it was likely the first fondue recipe in the German-speaking world. The almond pudding with a golden glaze is particularly extravagant.

Of course, many Zurich residents could not afford gold at that time. Nor could they afford spices, which were very expensive at the time. By using these ingredients lavishly, Anna Margaretha Kitt was able to distinguish herself from the lower classes. The Konstanzerhaus thus marks the place where rich people could distance themselves from their contemporaries by consuming colonial goods.

Ina Boesch is a cultural scientist, author and curator. She received her doctorate from the University of Zurich with a biography of the socialist Margarethe Hardegger. After a multi-year stint as an editor at Radio SRF2 Kultur, she now writes books on European cultural history. In her new book, she follows the global traces of the Zurich merchants Kitt.


Privatarchiv Kitt, Memoriebüchlein.

Staatsarchiv Zürich, C II 6, Konstanz.

Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Ms P 6071, Anna Margaretha Gessners Kochbuch.

Further readings:

Boesch, Ina: Weltwärts. Die globalen Spuren der Zürcher Kaufleute Kitt. Zürich 2021.

Prakash, Om: Restrictive Trading Regimes: VOC and the Asian Spice Trade in the Seventeenth Century, in: Pearson, M. N. (Hg.): Spices in the Indian Ocean World. Farnham and Burlington 1996, S. 317–336.